Friday, March 25, 2005

Infamous or Unfamous?

In this increasingly culturally myopic society, the notion of celebrity has evolved into a fully mechanized, self-propelled marvel. What was once an earned by-product of high-profile success has now become an all at once fleetingly, over-emphasized achievement sometimes achieved through happenstance that ultimately ends in insignificance and confusing ambiguity.

While growing up, it was always a given that one was to trust celebrity culture. Naturally, I have always had a deep seeded distrust of this American invention. It’s one thing to not particularly care about celebrities and their lifestyles, but it’s another thing altogether to distrust what it is that they stand for either personally, or as a representative of the machine of Hollywood.

It’s clear that the impact that celebrity has had on world culture is profound and abundant. Tabloids, as either agents of dissemination or harbingers of eventual celebrity doom, are as equally responsible, if not more, than any of the other professional, “legitimate” media. Therefore, the rampant availability of celebrity claptrap has allowed for an interweaving thread of media-imposed consequence in world affairs and thusly a valid impact on world society. Rarely can one watch a world news report about serious and consequential events and not eventually be confronted with the latest news of celebrities pairing off or splitting up or taking sides in a dispute.

There aren’t currently any official distinctions of celebrity types but there are certainly many potential categories: professional, circumstantial, sex-scandal, political, literary (just kidding), so-called reality, etc.; the list could go on and on. Just exactly what the term celebrity means in this context is ultimately insignificant, but what it connotes is incredibly complex and constantly evolving. Celebrity can be gained or lost through acts of notoriety, good or bad. Celebrity is achieved or attained through any combination of effort, hard work, luck, skill, good looks, shrewdness, timing or none of the above. Celebrity has become the most intangible of tangibles in our society. No one can accurately describe what it is or precisely how it is granted or lost, but people certainly know it when the see it.

Perhaps the most irksome trend of select celebrity personalities is the recent proliferation of political soap-boxing. Most people find this at the very least insulting and sometimes extremely aggravating. But it should come as no surprise that we who worship at the altar of celebrity idolatry would by our very nature encourage celebrity politicking no matter how misinformed or misguided it might be. American pop culture gives celebrities so much credit in so many ways that it should come as no surprise that they would harbor the misconception that they are the voice of reason in this oft-misguided world.

Politicians no doubt have made great use of celebrity support to their own advantage: hanging out with U2 and “The Boss” gives voters the impression of a hip down-to-earth political persona who would be just as comfortable groovin’ to the blues as balancing the national budget. However, public reaction to celebrity pandering can often be mixed. It’s probably best not to have Mickey Rourke campaigning on your behalf, at least not in any crucial swing states.

The line that our culture draws between serious celebrity, political discourse and incredulity of the scope of celebrity political opinion is unclear. The same culture that often sees Sean Penn as an over-opinionated condescending windbag finds it not a touch ironic to vote Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of one of the most populous, culturally complex and economically viable states in the union. Perhaps it is because Penn’s history of political activism makes him divergent from the mainstream of politics while Arnold has an “in” through marriage and a history of conservative Republican politics. What is most confusing about this phenomenon is that because Penn is so historically outspoken about his politics, his stance on issues is and has been clear for quite some time. On the other hand, before the 2003 California recall election, most Americans only knew about “The Governators” politics through his stint as President Bush 40’s Fitness General or whatever his title was.

Schwarzenegger’s successful campaign for governor and heretofore popular, if not relatively silent term at the helm of California government has spawned a new crusade on his behalf. There is a small, though legitimate contingency of Arnold’s peers and constituents who would like to see the United States’ Constitution amended to allow foreigners, specifically Arnold, to run for president. One gets the sense this misguided attempt at revolution is a hubris attempt at change just to see if it can be done. Whatever the motivation, the short-sightedness of this challenge to the Constitution is alarming.

What is particularly distressing about the confusion of celebrity culture is the ease with which certain notorious people achieve fame through infamy. Violent criminals are often handed the lofty status of accidental or circumstantial celebrity, though albeit in a different context than movie stars. Take, for example, Scott Petersen. No one in their right mind would argue that Scott Petersen is deserving of celebrity status, but the media fixation on his trial for murdering his wife quickly reached the proportion of a self-evolving phenomenon wherein even peripheral players are allowed airtime to discuss their thoughts on the case.

A surprising factor in the business of celebrity is the manufacturing thereof. Fox’s concept for American Idol is nothing new for anyone that’s seen Star Search, but the twist is bizarre. The show aims to seek out talent and personality and infuse the two with national exposure through competition into a final product of celebrity where none previously existed. One could argue, presumably quite accurately, that this is how many of the celebrities we now adore are made. But by revealing the process to its audience and actually allowing the audience to participate, simultaneously eliminating any X-factors, American Idol is essentially democratizing the previously intangible process of celebrity engineering, thusly removing any of the mystique of celebrity itself. This exercise in post-modernism marks a disturbing trend in celebrity culture and that is that celebrity does not necessarily come pre-ordained. Any delusions of destiny are clearly removed when the next flash-in-the-pan is elected by an astute television audience. If only electing the President were so truly democratic.

The end of celebrity for some people can certainly be devastating especially for those who were suddenly granted celebrity status then just as suddenly had it revoked. Those unfortunate souls have been rendered “unfamous” and suddenly culturally inert and even worse, insignificant. Few words of consolation can dull the impact when the ruthless fickleness of American pop culture rips the status of celebrity from the ordained.

However, most often, celebrities unintentionally manufacture their own undoing usually in a megomaniacal attempt at furthering their already lofty status. “Celebrity schizophrenia” is a common problem for the elite. It can be simply defined as anytime a celebrity suddenly has an epiphany and changes in the public eye for the worse. Just like the onset of celebrity, any number of factors can bring about destruction: marriage to an unpopular and decidedly greasy back-up dancer, joining a mysterious religion (read: cult) several misguided career and love-interest choices, blatant and repeated public breakdowns, ignoring the demands placed upon the self as celebrity. This phenomenon is not to be confused with “reinvention” which is territory that has and continues to serve Madonna and, previously, Michael Jackson quite well.

Perhaps the great unraveling of celebrity is best exemplified by Wacko Jacko, or rather the delusion of near-divinity his remaining fans still cling to. These people continue to ignore his most obvious faults, holding to the once universally agreed, but now disputable claim that he is an artist of great consequence. Of course, any sane person would have long ago distanced himself from Jackson, whose significant and prolific career achievements are quickly becoming obscured by his relentlessly questionable behavior. It used to be sad to consider that Jackson’s legacy may not in fact be his music, but his ongoing struggles with the law and the media. Now it is just common sense to believe this will in fact be the case. Jackson had long ago passed into unintentional self-parody, becoming a caricature of some sort of creepy Vincent Price-obsessed man-child who has holed himself up in a fantasy land holding court with only children. But now as his child molestation trial progresses past OJ territory into some new and uncharted realm of celebrity humiliation, Jackson is steadfastly and willfully increasingly bizarre. His once-certain future in the halls of pop idolatry now firmly entrenched in the tome of celebrity infamy. Essentially, Jackson has conducted his own undoing by rendering himself unable to distinguish the difference between Michael Jackson the performer and Michael Jackson the person.

One of the most tragic and ironic twists to “The King of Pop’s” legacy is that, unlike the majority of celebrities, he can never return to anonymity. He passed the point of celebrity no-return sometime in the mid-seventies. It’s painfully obvious that a personality like Jackson feeds off of his fame, lives off it, even cannot survive without it. This unique celebrity does not afford him the benefit of eventually becoming “un-famous” but in fact solidifies the likelihood that he will live on in infamy, just not the way that he had intended.

And so, sadly, this is the fate of those who dare venture too far into the realm of celebrity culture. The realization that there is, in fact, no way out must all at once bring on conflicting feelings of divinity, hopelessness, dread, fear, and supreme confidence , culminating in a sort of mania that enables the uber-celeb to act in whatever way he deems appropriate, whether or not the rest of us agree. Then we can all salivate at the prospect of seeing yet another celebrity cornered by his own notoriety, much of which we are all responsible for perpetuating. It can be safely said that the only thing celebrity culture loves more than a shooting star is a falling star.

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